Against The Hype: My Review of Red Rising

Week 2 of keeping my New Year’s resolution – so far so good! Hopefully it lasts. I’ve been getting some great feedback on last week’s post, so that’s definitely encouraging. Thank you to everyone who read it, and who let me know their thoughts.

On to this week. I have to admit that writing this week’s review was much harder than I was expecting. It went through several different incarnations and I actually think that helps the point I’ll be making about the book in a second. First, some background on the book to get you all situated.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown is a new dystopian/science fiction novel that was released around this time last year. So far it’s received a warm reception from critics and readers alike, and the movie rights have already been sold. Quite the exciting year for Brown. Here is some more information, if you’re interested in the book: The book is about Darrow, a 16 year old living on Mars in the faraway future. Darrow is a Red, one of the many castes in the hierarchical society, and the lowest ranking. Reds’ job is to mine the depth of Mars for a particular compound to help terraform Mars and one day colonize it. Conditions as a Red, however, are pretty dire. It’s a tough, short life, filled with danger and poverty, and not everyone is resigned to it. After his wife is executed, Darrow is recruited into a revolutionary group that seeks to change the way things are. In joining, Darrow discovers that his life up till this point has been a lie, and that Mars is not only fit for life, but has already been colonized. Darrow sets off on a journey to infiltrate the tight, elite world of the Golds (the top caste) so that he can get close to the heart and help bring the whole empire toppling down.

I wanted to like the book. I really did. Upon a quick inspection, it had everything for me to get behind it. It even threw in some Roman mythology! And the guy is a good writer – he can turn a decent phrase. So I decided to give it a try, even though going by reviews has burned me in the past. Sadly, I must say that I got burned yet again. Now, I could go into minute detail about the things that didn’t work for me, but then we’d all be here for days, and no one wants that. So, instead, I’ve boiled down my comments to the general.

Ready for this? Here we go. (Of course, for those of you who would still like to read it – SPOILER ALERT. I won’t go into too much detail, but just the same, you have been warned).

The major issue I had with the book was with its world building. This is just what it sounds like – how a fictional world is put together. This is hardest in genres like fantasy, dystopian/post-apocalyptic, and science fiction genres. In fantasy, you’re creating an entirely new world with new rules. This can be incredibly liberating but it’s very easy to get carried away. Magic is too convenient a plot device in most cases because it becomes a solution to EVERYTHING. Dystopian fiction takes place in a grim future where survival is once again a struggle for human beings. It must have a link to the present day, and usually carries some kind of warning about the future we’re creating (the good ones do, anyway). Lastly, science fiction requires predicting scientific advancement and how it affects human life. I’d argue this is the trickiest because, without a good understanding of technology or science, it’s hard to do the genre any justice.

There’s a reason the quintessential writing advice is “write what you know.” It’s nearly impossible to write well, or with confidence, about something you know little about. It also helps establish internal consistency, or in other words, helps things make sense and fit together well. Red Rising just didn’t do that. Reading it, I didn’t buy into the world, or the stakes. The big moment in the book, the one that sets off all the others, is Eo’s (Darrow’s wife) execution. To give you a quick recap, she orchestrates her own death to make a point, which is supposedly to incite rebellion. It was a moment surely intended to be tragic and poignant. And I felt nothing. I was actually rather annoyed with her for doing it. There’s dying for a cause, and then there’s throwing your life away in a badly chosen moment. Most of the book was filled with moments like that for me. The only part of the book that caught my interest was when Darrow, after being literally ripped apart and put back together as a Gold (they’re kind of like superhumans), manages to gain entry into the elite Institute, where all the Gold teenagers with the brightest futures go to compete with each other for the best apprenticeships. The Institute is less of a school, and more of a Hunger Games/Lord of the Flies/capture the flag arena. Everyone is sorted into Houses named after the Roman gods, and given only one objective – conquer all other houses by any means.

This game was the only part of the book that actually hooked me. It was suspenseful and intriguing. It was an in-depth study into the mechanics of power and leadership. Watching Darrow figure out what it takes to make people willingly follow you and be loyal to you was original enough to be enjoyable. Brown does some very interesting things with the abstract concepts of power and leadership. But this was only a part of the book. One critic put it best: Red Rising gets off to a “clunky” start; it almost feels like everything leading up to the Institute was simply connecting the dots, and the real story started there. Even if the beginning was primarily set up, it still needs to work and fit with the rest of the book. For me it felt more like an art exhibition where the artist put the most work into the centre piece and left the rest of the art half-finished.

In my opinion, there are 2 fundamental questions that a dystopian/post-apocalyptic story should answer for it to work. One: how did the world get here? Now, it makes sense that eventually we’d have both the technology and the need to venture out into other parts of the solar system. But Brown’s explanation about an interplanetary empire just didn’t do it for me. It just feels like he wanted to replicate the Roman empire in a sci-fi world. Two: why is society the way it is? Most of the time in this genre, it has something to do with some huge cataclysm that forced humanity into chaos, and the survivors overcompensated by trying to form a perfect society. This is something Brown doesn’t address at all. Presumably the Golds created the caste system because they are the superior race and that was that.

The best way I can sum all this up is that there is a lot going on, and it doesn’t fit together organically. There is a lot more I could critique (the dialogue and use of Roman culture and myth, for starters) but it all basically follows the same pattern. It’s inconsistent and often confusing.

That being said, I do think Pierce Brown has potential. I can see why this story caught the attention of a major publisher. The execution, however, could have been much stronger, simpler, and tighter.

That’s it for now. Check back next week, when I’ll have more to say about YA post-apocalyptic fiction as a genre.

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